Archive for the ‘Catholic culture’ category

The Pope’s Elephant, by Silvio Bedini

January 6, 2016

Und dann und wann ein weißer Elefant.
 —Rilke, “Das Karussel”

Pope Leo X Medici lived like a king, and all the kings of Europe paid him tribute, even from new possessions reached by sail. King Manuel I of Portugal sent a mission to Rome in 1513 led by explorer Tristão da Cunha, who had named south Atlantic islands after himself. In addition to a gold chalice, gold tabernacle, vestments of gold cloth, and an altar frontal  “sewn with countless pearls and precious stones valued at more than 60,000 ducats, ” the mission included a cheetah, two leopards, “numerous parrots,” a Persian horse, and a three-year-old Indian elephant named Hanno.

Just getting Hanno to Rome was a feat of engineering and doggedness. His weight required special hoists from ship to dock and meant that transport by wagon was out of the question. Hanno made the last leg of seventy miles from Porto Ercole to Rome on his own four legs, stopping from time to time to recuperate from the effects of Roman roads on his footpads.

The arrival of Hanno and presentation to the pope became a story of its own. Hanno’s mahout had trained him to bow down low upon meeting Leo, which he did, and then followed up the obeisance with a burst of water sucked up from a barrel, dousing Leo’s courtiers. The pope was delighted.

Hanno settled down into the papal menagerie, where he was the star attraction. At several points, Bedini tries to make the case for Hanno as the pope’s favorite pet, but there’s not much evidence to support that part of the story.

The pope used Hanno at one point to embarrass an unfortunate abbot, Giacomo Baraballo, who was made to ride the elephant in a kind of fool’s parade. This tale was often a chief exhibit to show the hopeless corruption of the papal court.

Unfairly absent from the book’s title is another unusual papal pet described in the book, the pope’s rhinoceros, who also became known far and wide, even becoming the subject of an influential drawing by Albrecht Dürer. There is a novel by Lawrence Norfolk called The Pope’s Rhinoceros, but Bedini doesn’t mention it here.

The book contains several dozen illustrations, including drawings of the animals, portraits, and maps. This is a scholar’s book; it really is upside-down, with the text less of a narrative than a compilation of notes. You like this kind of thing or you don’t. Once I figured out what I was reading, I admired it immensely.


Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno

Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno



The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

January 1, 2012

What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
Henry V, IV.i

In a future 1980 or so, the former Archbishop of Lviv (Anthony Quinn) is released from the Gulag by personal order of the Premier (Laurence Olivier) and, pursuant to an agreement with the Holy See, whisked to the Vatican, where he is made a Cardinal just in time for the Pope (John Gielgud) to die. After a number of inconclusive votes, the cardinals turn to this newcomer and make him Kiril I. In order to demonstrate his seriousness in the need to relieve world poverty, he refuses to be crowned with the tiara and pledges to give away all the wealth of the Church.

It’s full of holes, but still a lot of fun. Quinn’s earnest performance makes all the improbabilities go down easy: He’s an eastern-rite bishop made Pope–it’s never been done, but there’s always a first time; he is not attended by a gaggle of aides everywhere he goes, but seems to have all those big rooms to himself; Fr. Telramond (Oskar Werner, sounding like he attended boarding school in England with William F. Buckley Jr., as a stand-in for Teilhard de Chardin) is under investigation for heresy, but is trusted with delicate diplomatic missions; and finally, the dramatic gesture at the end–we see the Pope put aside the tiara (in Fr. Neuhaus’s phrase) and hear the cries of “Viva il Papa!“, but don’t get to see how this all turns out for good. It’s interesting to speculate–how much could the Vatican raise if it really wanted to sell everything off? Would there even be a buyer for St. Peter’s, or would it have to be stripped and pieces sold individually?

You can feel the tension in the script as the story was stretched from its pre-Vatican II origin to a post-Vatican II reality. Much of the stiffness and ceremony in Vatican proceedings was already starting to melt away by the time that the film came out. Kiril, for all his freshness and lack of pretension, is careful always to use the first person plural in dealings with clergy. This shows how on one level, the story is really a conciliarist’s fantasy–a Pope with all the strength of Pius XII, if not Gregory XVI, with the willingness to use it to cram through the much-needed change.  Of course, if Kiril governed as humbly as he spoke, he would be run over by those unwilling to join him–another St. Celestine V.

The last papal coronation was of Paul VI in 1963. He later sold his tiara to raise funds for the poor. The tiara lives only in the papal coat of arms (when not eclipsed by the miter), but the poor are still with us.

Am elften elften

November 11, 2009

On the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at 11:11 a.m., the people of Munich begin their Fasching celebration. Depending on the date of Easter, and thus the date of Ash Wednesday, Fasching could be three to four months long. In counterpoise to this odd Catholic observance, a sober Day of Prayer and Repentance (Bett- und Bußtag) follows on the Wednesday eleven days before the beginning of Advent.

Prosit! Amen.